Since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, representatives of the island’s Muslim minority and Buddhist majority have increasingly clashed violently. Attacks and counterattacks between the two communities have challenged the hope for peace on the island. Peacebuilding approaches to deal with the clashes between the religious communities require a better understanding of human non-material needs as motivation for political action. Considering the rationality of seemingly irrational acts such as self-immolation helps in understanding both these needs and the contentious issue at hand.
As the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka’s long war enter the public domain and the government designs transitional justice mechanisms, is an end to impunity in sight?
The Sri Lankan government is currently designing transitional justice mechanisms to address human rights abuses connected to the three decade long war which ended in May 2009. But a key question is whether victims of sexual violence and rape committed in the context of the war will come forward and use these mechanisms?
The silence around sexual violence has long posed a challenge to determining its nature, scale and magnitude in the context of Sri Lanka’s long war. On the one hand, this is due to the pervasive culture of shame, which deters women from speaking out. Twenty-five years ago, in Broken Palmyrah Rajini Thiranagama noted that the “loss of virginity in a young girl, even if against her will, meant that she could not aspire to marriage in our society and, if already married, there is a good chance that she will be abandoned”.
The view of rape victims as “spoilt goods” has always been one of the most significant causes of under-reporting. Survivors and their families are however silenced not only by the shame of rape, but also by fear. Fear of reprisal by perpetrators or of further violence from the very institutions meant to protect them. That too remains unchanged.
In her new book, Swati Parashar looks at the subjectivities of militant women in two protracted South Asian conflicts: Kashmir and Sri Lanka. She reveals that women who do not fit the stereotypical bill of wailing victim or mother are silenced by a dominant social discourse, which translates into the absence of women in peace building processes and post-war politics. Parashar draws on her qualitative research, International Relations, feminist literature and a vast number of multidisciplinary sources on gender and war to shed light on the mutual effects of politics and gendered understandings of female identities and bodies. Her book is divided into several chapters introducing the topic of silencing, gendered nature of wars, issues connected to her fieldwork, her findings from Kashmir and Sri Lanka, and finally the politics of remembering.
Many in Sri Lanka had hoped that the arrival of world leaders for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo recently would have signalled the triumphant re-emergence of Sri Lanka on the world stage, having cast off doubts about war crimes committed at the end of its 25-year-long civil war and concerns about the increasingly authoritarian nature of its government.
Instead, the summit ended up being a political disaster for the Sri Lankan administration. Prominent leaders—of Canada, India and Mauritius—boycotted the event, only half of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states sent an actual head of government (the others were represented at a more junior level) and those leaders who did turn up insisted on asking questions publicly about accountability for war crimes allegedly committed at the end of the civil war.
Since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, China has not only emerged as the main strategic actor in Sri Lanka, it has also replicated a familiar set of development and partnership strategies in the process. For instance, in 2012 Chinese companies completed the construction of a deep water port at Hambantola at an estimated cost of $450 million. More recently, the Sri Lankan Port authority announced a Chinese-backed $1.4 billion deal for the reclamation of 568 acres of land and construction of a new port near Colombo. Accordingly, China’s growing involvement in the Sri Lankan maritime sector is starting to bear all the hallmarks of its development of the Pakistani port of Qwadar. Currently managed by China Overseas Port Holdings, the port stands at the east entrance of the Straits of Hormuz and is set to be linked by road, rail and pipeline infrastructure to the resource-rich Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Like the Qwadar-Xinjiang Development Corridor project, China also views its growing interests in Sri Lanka as a geopolitical game changer. Chinese strategists have long feared that adversaries could close the Straits of Malacca in the event of conflict, thereby starving China of energy supplies and other strategic imports. In this respect, maritime facilities located on the island potentially allow Beijing to exert greater influence over the Straits. Yet, this has not gone unnoticed by South Asia’s traditional maritime and regional power India, which is also worried about the growing military partnership between China and Sri Lanka.